Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Nick de Ocampo's Cine Sine - A Look Into the Origins of Cinema

The past gives us clues on how we arrive at the present, and stirs us to a path into the future. This is why history is always a crucial feature we always have to consider. Documentary film maker Nick De Ocampo’sCine Sine” looks back at the early beginnings of the moving picture, i.e. “cinema” in the country.

This popular art form survived invasions and colonization. While the very first images were seen in Europe, i.e. that of a train pulling into a train station - the first audience had to scamper for safety, fearful of getting run over by this cinematic train; the local audience had a more austere introduction. Cinema in fact grew during the time of war. On the first day of January 1897, at #12 Interior, the first screening of a moving picture materialized in a private residence in Escolta, the oldest street in the walled city of Intramuros. It was the house of Senor Francisco Pertierra. It showed 4 film clips: a man with a hat, a boxing match, a Japanese dance and a plaza outside a Parisian opera house. These were the very first flickering images seen in the country. A few days later, another film screening occurred at the second floor of a jewelry shop of the Ullmann Brothers, just a few skips from the first venue. From then, the residents commenced their love affair with the film medium which flourished during Spain’s three centuries of colonial rule.

The first film shown in public was presented by a gentleman from Aragon (Spain) a year later, showing and shuffling documentaries on European natural calamities and other “contemporary events” from films in Paris. It ran for 3 weeks and cost 50 cents for chairs and 30 cents for benches at the back. It even had 4 regular screening schedules that ran from 6 PM to 10 PM.


More than anything, film reflects the pervasive cultural mores in a struggling populace. It also provides insight on our influences. In 1919, Jose Nepomuceno produced the first Filipino film – “Dalagang Bukid” based on a musical zarzuela (a genre that alternates spoken and sung scenes). Nepomuceno would eventually acquire the title: “The Father of Philippine Movies”.

Nick De Ocampo recreates Escolta through 3D animations and visual effects (by Roy Dadivas). Sprucing them with anecdotes from a distant past, taking us into illustrious houses of old made of stones (“bahay na bato”) and leading us into the evolution of the cinema. Personalities were further interviewed: Bienvenido Lumbera, Bambi Harper, flamenco dancer Guillermo Gomez, and even Raul Pertierra – nephew of the one who introduced the medium to the country. We are then exposed into important works that made a dent in painting the Pinoy psyche through the years, by featuring snippets of characters from these films: There’s Kulas (a very charming – and young – Christopher de Leon) who strives to become a “Pilipino” in the eyes of ascendant upper-tier characters (Eddie Garcia, Gloria Diaz) in Eddie Romero’sGanito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon”; there’s the socially and sexually repressed Rosenda (the spectacular Lolita Rodriguez) in Lino Brocka’sBukas, Madilim, Bukas” (for the omnibus Brocka flick, “Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa”); there’s the mentally challenged Koala (Lolita Rodriguez, once again) in another Brocka masterpiece, “Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang” as she communes with a leper (Mario O’Hara) and the lone symbol of hope, Junior (Christopher de Leon).

The film also lays the briskly evolving trends, like the employing of American-sounding names like Dorothy Jones which later became Nida Blanca to swing with public preference for Hispanic-sounding names (weren’t we referred as the Asian Latinos then?). Rose Stagner became Rosa del Rosario, the first movie queen, and local cinema’s very first Darna in 1951!

Then, as it is now, it was almost customary to employ half-breeds and fair-skinned talents, thus many of the stars bear Caucasian blood.

Sometime in the 60’s a phenomenon arose when a timid and dark skinned girl came to the fore – Nora Aunor, who would become local cinema’s one and only Superstar! While scenes from Ishmael Bernal’s Himala” beamed at Aunor, the camera pans to a devout Elsa , kneeling on a hill, eyes shut, and praying to the heavens. And I was cloaked with stark realization of how unbelievably beautiful she was. I have never considered Ms. Aunor particularly beautiful, but gazing at her – long dark hair billowing in mid-air, face free from Belo-style modifications, eyes gazing in crystal compunction – I had goosebumps as she eventually turned to a devout crowd, shouting, “Walang himala!” There has never been an actress as cinematically potent as La Aunor, and I am starting to understand her mystique from this re-introduction.

The pervasive theme of repression, a Eurocentric architectural influence, the origin of several terms from such Hispanic era – takilya, balkonahe, orkestra, telon, kurtina, entablado, silya, kwarto de proyeksiyon, and so on - each item present in and around these moving images. How have we conveniently forgotten our roots? And I can only be grateful to have been reminded.

Though the animation is more than adequate in recreating the Escolta of the 1800s, a few scenes feel like watching the graphics of an online game. But most of the film’s quibble, though minor, comes from De Ocampo’s decision to present the facts himself. For one, he has verbal crutches which prove a tad distracting to the audience, i.e. his long “E’s” and short “I’s”. “Influenced”, for example, becomes “in-floo-wenced” with accent on the second syllable, where it should be first. “Individual” becomes “in-di-vee-dwal”. “Religion” becomes “re-lee-gion”. “Armada” becomes “ar-may-da”. “Seeks” becomes “six”. “Still” becomes “steel”. For documentaries to be more effective, a presenter is preferred to be devoid of these presenting crutches so its audience can concentrate more on the voluminous details. This of course doesn’t say we think less of this work. In fact, we do believe that “Cine Sine” deserves to be seen by the movie-loving Pinoys. And aren’t we all?

Jose Nepomuceno, the Father of Philippine Movies. Produced the first Filipino movie, "Dalagang Bukid".

Kulas: Fitting into a society with identity crisis in "Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon".

Rosenda finally fights back against her repressed existence in Brocka's "Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa". Every actor should watch this scene where the amazing Lolita Rodriguez hardly raised her voice, yet she spewed enough venom for her controlling mother (Mary Walter).

Nora Aunor - such beauty and grace as Elsa, the visionary and stigmatic in Bernal's "Himala".

Rosa del Rosario had to change her name from Rose Stagner, a fil-am beauty who would become the first "Darna".

Acknowledgment for the various photos: manilahub.i.ph, philippine-history.org, video48.blogspot.com, manilablog.com, pelikulaatbp.blogspot.com, mars ravelo website

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Kim Ki Duk's Breath - The Retaliatory Feminist Tale

Yeon (Park Ji-ah) is transfixed to her television news where Jang jin, an inmate on deathrow, is rushed to a hospital after yet another suicide attempt. It’s Jang jin’s second try while awaiting for his punitive comeuppance within a month.

Yeon, a neglected wife, is frustrated. She recently discovers that her husband (Jung-woo Ha) is having an affair. Her morbid introspection has brought her to a decision: she will enveigle a relationship with the news-worthy convict. She understands the repressive atmosphere of a prison. She lives in one. In the process, she also gets back at his unrepentant husband’s infidelity.

Prisoner 5796 Jang jin (Taiwanese actor Chang Chen) has curtailed his capacity to speak by self mutilating the voice box (larynx) of his throat every time he attempts to end his life. He shares a cell with peculiar beings: an artist who makes the prison walls his canvas; a massage therapist; and a younger guy who’s infatuated with Jang jin. One day, he receives Yeon, an unexpected visitor from left field who pretends to be his former girlfriend. Though he’s never met her before, he’s intrigued by her impetuous behavior. During her visits, Yeon depicts the changing of the seasons by painstakingly decorating the visitor’s room with thematic wall papers (she even recreates fall season at Seorak Mountain); sprucing azalea flowers all over, and even dressing up for the part. At the end of each visit, Yeon leaves him a photo which eventually gets stolen, torn to pieces inside Jang jin’s cell.

When Yeon’s husband gets wind of her activities (something that she doesn’t hide from him), he begrudgingly ends his extramarital ties. Will this stop Yeon from seeing Jang jin?

Director Kim Ki Duk weaves another enchanting tale that hooks you from the opening scene to its last frame. Like most of his flicks, the director muddles major details of the story and offers them in enticing bits much later as the story unravels. This keeps his viewer waiting with bated breath. Kim Ki Duk is one of my favorite auteurs. In fact, his works are on proud display in my DVD room. I have 12 of his 17 directorial efforts and was only too thrilled to get this copy four years after its international release.


Breath” isn’t as tight a narrative as his earlier efforts, but you can’t deny the artistic vision of the master director. There are a few holes in the story: why did Yeon’s husband deny her sexual advances if he indeed wanted to make a go of their relationship? How is Yeon able to beautifully wall paper the Hansung prison room every time she visits Jang jin? When Yeon and Jang Jin were finally able to consummate their inscrutable relationship, what explains Yeon’s demeanor of holding her lover’s breath? The scene, which eventually made the film’s title, baffles.

Chang Chen smolders. His every scene beckons and captivates. It takes a while to figure out the non speaking convict, and its easy to gravitate toward his character. We later realize that Jang jin was convicted for killing his wife and her children.

Kim Ki Duk curiously cameos as the “voyeur” who watches over the unseemly lovers in the confines of his security office. God complex, Mr. Kim? In the past, he has been accused of misogyny, but “Breath” is curiously feminist. Ji-ah perceptively depicts the unbeloved wife and provides the emotional crux of an otherwise disaffected narrative. In Yeon’s desperation, she wills to redress her marital inequity. But when we find her singing her heart out to entertain Jang jin, we feel her internal conflict. Some emotions are too potent to hide.

Park Ji-ah

Chang Chen

Chang Chen is a popular Taiwanese actor who has appeared in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Happy Together", "Three Times, and "Red Cliff". "Breath" is his first Korean movie.

Jung-woo Ha

Jung-woo Ha is the unfaithful husband.

Director Kim Ki Duk studied fine arts in Paris. He has directed 17 feature films including my favorite, "The Isle" and "Samaritan Girl". Am looking forward to finding his documentary "Arirang", "Dream", "Amen", and the intriguing "Real Fiction".

Monday, January 23, 2012

Release - In the Realm of an English Pink

There’s never quite like the Pinoy Pink Film in terms of temperament, ambition (read: the lack of it), artistic limitation or in-your-face mediocrity. Then I saw Darren Flaxtone and Christian Martin’s Release”. The comparison may be a little unfair for this British flick, but the narrative progression and artistic choices that the directors take echo this local emergence.

Father Jack Gillie (Daniel Brocklebank) gets incarcerated for euthanizing his younger brother afflicted with terminal stage leukemia. But this detail is kept from his prison mates, thus everyone thinks of him as the pedophile. His conflicted demeanor draws him to a new prison guard, the idealistic Martin Crane (Garry Summers) who in his quest to do good for mankind turns to the penal system. (Go figure!) The two eventually fall in love. Unfortunately, pedophiles are as reviled among inmates. Jack gets spat at and taunted for his “sins”. It doesn't help that he’s bunked in with a young inmate Rook (Wayne Virgo) who has an issue with influential Max (Bernie Hodges) – and Max is out to get Rook in more ways than one.

The narrative is riddled with a coterie of issues to chew on, none of which is legibly handled: religion, mercy killing, morality in a prison community, homosexuality. You hardly feel any authentic insight into any of these issues. In fact, much of these items conflict with each other. The irony here goes: Jack – the Catholic priest – has totally embraced his homosexuality. We witness no sense of guilt, an issue solely highlighted and deftly handled in insightful movies like Antonia Bird’s “Priest” (where Linus Roach is torn between the religion he preaches and serves and his secret life as a homosexual). In retrospect, we have a priest who believes in mercy killing; a priest who bears no scruples having a male lover. Sure, these things happen, but when someone of his stature doesn’t even feel a degree of conflict in his lifestyle and the teachings he’s supposed to live by, why bother being one?

The story is further weighed down by plot holes the size of Mars. How can Jack and Martin continuously share a concupiscent night in a prison cell without Martin’s fellow guards wondering where he went? Jack is in a bunk with young Rook, what does he tell his younger cellmate – I’m gonna pop out for a fag? Didn't Rook ever wonder? A scene involving the female warden and Max has the latter blackmailing the warden with a mere power of suggestion which is almost laughable. Was she hypnotized? Why does Max hate a pedophile so much when he is surrounded by cold-blooded killers - like himself? Besides, couldn't Jack inform them what brought him inside? That would have ended all the speculations and acts of dissension. It is, after all, a sin to tell a lie. More so, if you’re a priest.

Martin and Jack

The film boasts of a judicious number of full frontals from everyone. In fact, gratuitous nudity becomes this film. In a scene where Max and his horde attack nubile-bodied Rook at the shower hall, there’s an awkward hybrid of violence and nudity as the young prisoner gets bludgeoned by "socked batteries" and the physical assault of Max and his gang. Genitals fly around, swiftly flailing on mid air and against gravity in a winceful spate of violence. Yes, there are several shower scenes – and they’re not bashful where flashing of crowned jewels are concerned - so who says those lingering shower scenes are exclusively Pinoy Pink fodder?

What brought me to watch this film is the reference to Simon Pearce and Christian Martin’s “Shank”. “Release” comes from the same people. Unfortunately, the story is pretty much a muddled artistic fare. The dream sequences, for example, confuse more than move the plot. Wayne Virgo, who was brilliant in “Shank” seemed lost and groping in the dark. His character, which carries the baffling plot twist as the film draws to a close, felt like an artifice for an undeserved deus ex machina. How easily can you turn a coat from heralding a friendly face to the opposite end of the spectrum? You hear a whisper from someone who almost mauled you to death, and you snap into enlightenment? Seriously?

Rational, credible character motivation has been disregarded. In fact, the film neglects the believable progression of Martin and Jack’s relationship which, for the most part, is a maneuvered relationship. It also dispenses lines that, though interesting, feels empty in the context of the story: “There are far worse things than damnation.” Like watching one of our pink films, that’s for sure. There’s more. Jack gets some verbal tussle with Max. “The path of the righteous is beset on all sides by the tyranny of evil men.” Reply: “To thine own self be true. As night follows days, I know who I am.” Inspired already?

Martin does his night rounds

Wayne Virgo plays Rook, Jack's bunk mate.

Dream sequence of Jack roaming the Bristol woodlands

Jack cleans his dirty hands.

Rook gets hurt.

Daniel Brocklebank

Garry Summers as idealistic prison guard Martin.

Wayne Virgo plays Rook.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Underworld Awakening - Reduced to Diverting Observations

It’s a grim world ensnared by paranoia.

Humans have discovered that vampires and lycans have succeeded in surviving what was once thought as a total annihilation a few years back. Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire warrior thawed from a block of ice after 12 years of hibernation, discovers that she has been released from a laboratory by another missing specimen – Subject 2, who turns out to be a child they call “Eve” (India Eisley). The pre-teen girl has Selene's boyfriend's Michael’s eyes, and appears vulnerable. Their staggering exit soon becomes a cataclysmic chase when those beastly lycans discover the child – a sentient being that could be more powerful than any of them. Her presence threatens them, thus the need to get rid of this hybrid of vampire and werewolf (like her father).

With the help of David (Theo James), the son of a herd of vampire clan, they find an unwelcoming shelter. They are of course rebuffed. Their presence in the community draws danger to a group which has prioritized self preservation over charity. But just when Selene and Eve start settling down, a horde of lycans (werewolves) attack and start annihilating the vampires. Moreover, the humans aren’t far behind. And they're out to draw blood, not fraternity.

Mars Marlind and Bjorn Stein’sUnderworld: Awakening” blatantly ushers us into the resurrection of a franchise that doesn’t deserve it. Selene for the most part appears indecisive, and her nemesis seems preeminent, albeit with sovereign power too potent for her to overcome. In fact, half the time you’re watching the gunfights and adrenaline action, you’re cloaked with utter disbelief how Selene could overpower her enemies (do you seriously think she’d lose?)

This netherworld is brushed like dark quarters of desperation and madness, and survival is taken to the fore. But why would an audience give their sympathy to blood-thirsty creatures? Or to horrendous furry beasts that gnaw on human flesh? Its film makers have somehow forgotten that humans are supposed to favor humans over creatures who make food out of their fragile existence. After all, in a dog-eat-dog world, we too have to propagate our species. Part of this preservation is haunting those who haunt us.

What does Beckinsale think of her returning character? In an interview with Adam Chitwood (collider.com), she said, “I always said there wasn’t going to be a fourth one. So you can’t trust what I say at all. I don’t know. Part of me thinks that’s so peculiar to me.” She further added, “But I am very fond of the character, and other people are pretty fond of her, too. So who knows? There’s part of me that thinks maybe it’s good to blaze a trail, to be the menopausal action heroine. Give me Underworld 12 and my little beard hairs.

A menopausal action heroine? Who knows what kind of vampires have mutated in that era. Af far as I know, 2012’s Selene looks more like the Cullens of “Twilight” than a formidable vampire warrior who merely looks good in a tight leather suit.


All these make watching “Underworld: Awakening” anything but cinematic immersion. I instead divert myself to daft observations: 12 years into the future and Selene’s sexy leather “costume” survives the passing of time; Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy), the police detective tracking down Selene, is a gorgeous black guy with the bluest of eyes; India Eisley who plays Subject #2 is a Rachel Weisz deadringer; and I could probably stare at Theo James since there’s no cinematic engagement to be had anyway. In a Ripley's moment, when Selene does a mean cardiac pump on a newly expired David – she cuts through his chest with bare nails, then manually grasps and pumps his heart with life-saving prowess – I was going to shimmy to Beyonce’s “Love on Top”!

I don’t lie.

Beautiful Kate Beckinsale

Kate Beckinsale appears next in Len Wiseman's "Total Recall" with Colin Farrell.

Kate Beckinsale

Theo James was seen in Antonio Banderas' "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger" and in the hit British film "The Inbetweeners".

Theo James

Theo James

India Eisley played Ashley in the TV series, "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"

India Eisley

Michael Ealy

Blue-eyed Michael Ealy appears next in the battle-of-the-sexes flick, Tim Story's "Think Like a Man"